from the world's big
How Elon Musk Envisions Transforming Mars into Another Earth
Elon Musk has a pretty ambitious plan to get humans to live on Mars in 40 years. Here's the tech that'll make that happen.
Elon Musk has a pretty ambitious plan to get humans to live on Mars in 40 years. The key part, as he announced yesterday at the International Aeronautical Conference, is creating technology that would bring the cost of the journey down and bring enough people and supplies to Mars to create a self-sustaining civilization.
In order to do that, Musk and his private space development company SpaceX need to bring the cost of a Mars mission down from $10,000,000,000 per person to $200,000. They identified 4 main ways to do that: 1) creating fully reusable spacecraft; 2) refueling them in orbit; 3) producing propellant on Mars, and; 4) using the right propellant.
SpaceX is tackling the reusability problem by building the rocket in 3 separate sections: the spaceship, the rocket booster, and the propellant tanker. They’re rethinking the design components of all 3 of those sections, too. For starters, the rocket needs to be bigger. WAY bigger:
See that tiny dot at the bottom right of the ship? That’s a person. Credit: SpaceX
That might seem excessive, but not to Musk. “The rocket needs to be about this size to fit 100 people in the pressurized section, plus luggage, cargo, propellant plants, iron foundries, pizza joints. We need to carry a lot of cargo.”
Musk theorized that SpaceX most likely be able to expand the crew section and bring closer to 200 people to minimize the number of trips. He also clarified that they’ll flat-pack all the cargo to maximize speed and efficiency. Then he broke down the math: “If a civilization needs 1 million people, [if we bring] 100 people per ship that’s 10,000 trips.” How exactly is all that stuff supposed to fit? Like this:
The interior of the Mars spaceship. Credit: SpaceX
“In order to make people want to go, it’s gotta be really fun,” Musk said about the design. “We have to design it like people see in the movies. Not cramped. Lots of room to move.”
Aside from being a fun design, the rocket is being built out of carbon fiber. SpaceX chose carbon fiber because it’s a durable material that wouldn’t require a separate liner, decreasing the mass of the overall ship. But carbon fiber tends to crack at a large scale, so “it’s a huge technical challenge to make cryogenic tanks out of it,” Musk admitted. “It’s just really hard to make huge carbon fiber structures that can do [all the things we need it to] and carry incredible loads.”
But his team is trying. And they’ve already built the first tank.
1) The crew standing outside the Mars rocket tank. Credit: Space X. 2&3) The inside of the Mars rocket tank. Credit: SpaceX
“This is the hardest part so we wanted to tackle it first,” Musk said of the tank. “Carbon dioxide and oxygen will need to be gassified [sic] though tanks into the engine. That powers the ship.” That’s much simpler than the Falcon 9 rocket’s system, which uses five ingredients: nitrogen, helium, carbon dioxide, hydrogen, and an ignition chemical. The team worked 7 days a week to get the tank done in time for IAC. Thus far, their efforts are paying off. “Initial tests look positive,” Musk said. “We haven’t seen any leaks.”
As encouraging as that is, the tank will still need to prove its reusability. “Spaceships last 30 years,” Musk explained. “They’ll take 12 to 15 flights at most, so we need to maximize the cargo and reuse the booster and tanker a lot.” The tanks will require between 3 and 5 trips filling trips from separate propellant tankers as the spaceship sits in orbit, waiting for the Mars rendezvous.
The next part of the ship SpaceX is working on is the rocket booster. The booster will act “like a javelin thrower,” Musk said, directing and accelerating the ship to 8,650 km/hour or 5,375 mph. Once it’s kicked the spaceship off towards Mars, it’ll come back to Earth in “20 minutes,” according to Musk.
The booster will be still be a “high-pressure turbo pump fed with cool proponent,” Musk said, but it’ll be simpler to build than the tanks because SpaceX is essentially scaling up their Falcon 9. The biggest difference is that it’ll be made of carbon fiber.
Remember, all of those pieces have to get back from Mars in order to make this plan feasible. Again, Musk’s solution is to build a propellant plant on Mars using methane as the ship’s primary fuel source. Here’s the breakdown of how that’s going to happen:
So now that we've seen the details of Musk's 4-step plan to get people on Mars, the real question is how much will the whole system cost. Musk has a chart for that, too:
“That is quite expensive,” Musk admits. He expects to "generate decent cash flow from launching satellites” with SpaceX and also ferrying items to the International Space Station. There’s also private sector interest as well, prompting Musk to admit that he knows this project will ultimately be a huge public-private partnership. “As we show that this dream can be someday made real, the support will snowball over time.”
That support is likely, as Musk’s dream doesn’t end at Mars. He hopes his rocket system will take us even further than that. “We have the basic system,” he said, “provided we have filling stations along the way. That gives access to the greater solar system.” Musk theorized about visiting Saturn’s Enceladus moon, Jupiter’s Europa moon, and even past Pluto and into deep space. “We’d need a different system for interstellar journeys,” Musk admitted, but it’s in the back of his mind.
What the Mars rocket would look like on Europa. Credit: SpaceX/Flickr
Musk is so dedicated to the idea that “the main reason I’m personally accumulating assets is to fund this.”
SpaceX began in 2002 “with a carpet and a mariachi band,” as Musk put it. It’s now a pioneering space company at the forefront of technical innovation. It will find a way to make us a multiplanetary species. The only question is when.
In case you thought he was kidding about the mariachi band. Credit: SpaceX
Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?
- Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
- It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
- COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
What conditions of the new normal were already appreciated widely?<p>First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there's higher education. Higher education as an "industry" involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.</p> <p>These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education's unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/rethinking-higher-education/lessons-disruption" target="_blank">disruption</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/education/learning/education-technology.html" target="_blank">technology management</a>, and so-called "<a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/Excerpt_IHESpecialReport_Growing-Role-of-Mergers-in-Higher-Ed.pdf" target="_blank">mergers and acquisitions</a>" in higher education. In each of these spaces, the "market forces" and "market rules" for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p> <p>Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are—and should remain—the core cause for innovation. Higher education's capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interests—or worse, <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/09/apollos-new-owners-seek-fresh-start-beleaguered-company" target="_blank">shareholder</a> interests—are placed above student well-being.</p>
Photo: Getty Images<p>Third, it is abundantly apparent that universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access. The rapid shift to delivering an education that complies with social distancing guidelines speaks volumes about the adaptability of higher education institutions, but this transition has also posed unique difficulties for colleges and universities that had been slow to adopt digital education. The last decade has shown that online education, implemented effectively, can meet or even surpass the quality of in-person <a href="https://link-springer-com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/article/10.1007/s10639-019-10027-z" target="_blank">instruction</a>.</p><p>Digital instruction, broadly defined, leverages online capabilities and integrates adaptive learning methodologies, predictive analytics, and innovations in instructional design to enable increased student engagement, personalized learning experiences, and improved learning outcomes. The ability of these technologies to transcend geographic barriers and to shrink the marginal cost of educating additional students makes them essential for delivering education at scale.</p><p>As a bonus, and it is no small thing given that they are the core cause for innovation, students embrace and enjoy digital instruction. It is their preference to learn in a format that leverages technology. This should not be a surprise; it is now how we live in all facets of life.</p><p>Still, we have only barely begun to conceive of the impact digital education will have. For example, emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that facilitate interactive, hands-on learning will transform the way that learners acquire and apply new knowledge. Technology-enabled learning cannot replace the traditional college experience or ensure the survival of any specific college, but it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale. This has always been the case, and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p>
What conditions of the new normal were emerging suspicions?<p>Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.</p> <p>In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/scott-galloway-predicts-colleges-will-close-due-to-pandemic-2020-5" target="_blank">closures</a> and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.</p> <p>While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose "let them fail" mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail. </p> <p>Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19's new normal seems to be confirming this.</p>
President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address during the Arizona State University graduation ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium May 13, 2009 in Tempe, Arizona. Over 65,000 people attended the graduation.
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images<p>A second condition of the new normal that many had suspected to be true in recent years is the limited role that any one university or type of university can play as an exemplar to universities more broadly. For decades, the evolution of higher education has been shaped by the widespread imitation of a small number of elite universities. Most public research universities could benefit from replicating Berkeley or Michigan. Most small private colleges did well by replicating Williams or Swarthmore. And all universities paid close attention to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. It is not an exaggeration to say that the logic of replication has guided the evolution of higher education for centuries, both in the US and abroad.</p><p>Only recently have we been able to move beyond replication to new strategies of change, and COVID-19 has confirmed the legitimacy of doing so. For example, cases such as <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/10/harvard-moves-classes-online-advises-students-stay-home-after-spring-break-response-covid-19/" target="_blank">Harvard's</a> eviction of students over the course of less than one week or <a href="https://www.nhregister.com/news/coronavirus/article/Mayor-New-Haven-asks-for-coronavirus-help-Yale-15162606.php" target="_blank">Yale's apparent reluctance</a> to work with the city of New Haven, highlight that even higher education's legacy gold standards have limits and weaknesses. We are hopeful that the new normal will include a more active and earnest recognition that we need many types of universities. We think the new normal invites us to rethink the very nature of "gold standards" for higher education.</p>
A graduate student protests MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images<p>Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had started to suspect and now understand that America's colleges and universities are among the many institutions of democracy and civil society that are, by their very design, incapable of being sufficiently responsive to the full spectrum of modern challenges and opportunities they face. Far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted. And without new designs, we can expect postsecondary success for these same students to be as elusive in the new normal, as it was in the <a href="http://pellinstitute.org/indicators/reports_2019.shtml" target="_blank">old normal</a>. This is not just because some universities fail to sufficiently recognize and engage the promise of diversity, this is because few universities have been designed from the outset to effectively serve the unique needs of lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color.</p>
Where can the new normal take us?<p>As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.</p> <p>COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher education—and these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years. </p> <p>ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but <em>driving</em> innovation in higher education. We have adopted a <a href="https://www.asu.edu/about/charter-mission-and-values" target="_blank">charter</a> that formalizes our definition of success in terms of "who we include and how they succeed" rather than "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/17/forget-varsity-blues-madness-lets-talk-about-students-who-cant-afford-college/" target="_blank">who we exclude</a>." We adopted an entrepreneurial <a href="https://president.asu.edu/read/higher-logic" target="_blank">operating model</a> that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as <a href="https://www.instride.com/how-it-works/" target="_blank">InStride</a>, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU <a href="https://edplus.asu.edu/" target="_blank">EdPlus</a>, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the <a href="https://theuia.org/" target="_blank">University Innovation Alliance</a>, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale. </p> <p>For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 <a href="https://asunow.asu.edu/20200519-sun-devil-life-summer-enrollment-sets-asu-record" target="_blank">enrollment</a> speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than "new normal" we might just say, it's "go time." </p>
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